A porter emerged from a Rochester inn, carrying a lantern. He yawned. ‘Heigh-ho. I’ll be hanged if it isn’t four o’clock in the morning. The Big Dipper has already risen above the chimney, and our horses aren’t ready yet. Hey, groom!’
‘Coming, coming,’ the groom called.
The porter with the lantern called to the other porter: ‘Hey, Tom , give the saddle of my horse a few whacks to soften it up, and stuff some wool under it—the old nag’s a bit raw about her shoulders.’
‘The feed here’s as damp as a dog, the second porter said. ‘That’s a fast way for a horse to get worms. This stable’s upside down since stable-boy Robin died.’
‘Poor fellow, he was unhappy since the price of oats rose. It was the death of him.’
‘This stable’s got worse fleas than any in London. I’m stung like a tench.’
‘Like a tench? I’m telling you, not even a Christian king could be bitten more than I’ve been bitten since midnight.’
‘They don’t even give us piss-pots. So we piss in the fireplace, and you know that piss breeds fleas like rats.’
The first porter shouted again: ‘Hey groom! Come on, for Christ’s sake. Come on!’
‘I’ve got to deliver a ham and some ginger root all the way to Charing Cross,’ said Tom.
‘God almighty!’ the other yelled. ‘The turkeys in my pannier are starving! Hey, Stable-boy! Curse you! Can’t you see? Can’t you hear? If it isn’t a good idea to knock you on the head, I’m an idiot. Come on, damn you! Can’t you even do your job?’
Gadshill came out of the inn. ‘Good morning, porters. What’s the time?’
‘I think it’s two o’clock,’ the first one said.
‘Lend me your lantern so I can check on my horse in the stable.’
‘Never, by God: listen to him!. I know a few tricks like that myself, I can tell you!’
‘Lend me yours,’ Gadshill asked the second man.
‘Certainly. Any time. Whatever you say. “Let me borrow your lantern,” he says! Yes, right. I’ll see you hanged first.’
‘Sirrah , what time do you plan to get to London?’
‘At a reasonable enough time. Come on, Mugs, old friend. Let’s wake the gentlemen up . They want to travel in a group because they’re carrying a lot of valuables.’
They went into the inn and Gadshill called for the chaamberlain.
‘I’m here, as the pickpockets say!’ the chamberlain called from inside the inn.
‘That’s as good as saying, “I’m there for you, said the chamberlain.” You’re only as different from a pickpocket as a boss is from a worker; you’re the one who does the planning.’
‘Good morning, Mr. Gadshill,’ the chamberlain said as he came out into the yard. ‘What I told you last night is still true. There’s a rich landowner all the way from Kent staying here, and he’s got three hundred gold coins with him. I heard him tell a man at supper last night. That man’s some kind of tax collector, and he has plenty of money with him, too. They just woke up and they’ve ordered their eggs and butter so they’ll be on their way soon.’
‘Sirrah, if they don’t run into some highway robbers you can have my neck’
‘No thank you: keep it for the hangman. I know you worship the patron saint of highway robbery, as a dishonest man like you would.’
‘Why are you talking to me about the hangman? If I hang I’ll make one of a fat pair on the gallows because if I hang old Sir John will be hanging with me – and he’s not exactly thin. Please! Our gang has some members you could never guess, and just for fun they’re happy to lend our profession some respect. If we were ever investigated, they would sort it out, for their own sake. I’ve got no wandering highwaymen, no thieves with homemade weapons, no purple-faced drunks with mad moustaches. Only men of calm and nobility for me: magistrates and court officials – men who can keep a secret; who’d rather hit you than speak, rather speak than drink, and rather drink than pray, and yet, God’s wounds! That’s a lie! They pray all the time to England, their patron saint. Or rather, they don’t pray to her; they prey on her because they ride her up and down and flog her.’
‘Flog the commonwealth? Won’t she squeal if she’s whipped?’
‘She will, she will. But she’s been greased with so many bribes that she’s waterproof. We thieve in complete safety; we’ve got a recipe that makes us invisible.’
‘Oh, I don’t think so. It’s the dark of night that makes you hard to see, not a secret recipe.’
Gadshill laughed. ‘Give me your hand. You’ll get a share of our booty. I swear on my honour.’
‘I’d rather have you swear by your reputation as a dishonest thief.’
‘Come on. I’m an honest man, even if I’m a dishonest thief. Tell the stable-boy to get my horse. Goodbye, you thick fellow.’